Who’s hiding 17th century Antwerp Brands?

Without considerable speculation, it is difficult to understand why someone would deliberately want to scratch away evidence of an Antwerp brand on the reverse of a 17th century panel. This is nevertheless what has happened to an oak panel intended for painting but which at some point became used for a marouflage (a technique for affixing a canvas painting to a rigid support) for a Portrait of a Man, possibly painted by Giulio Campi (1500 – 1572).[1]

Giulio Campi (?), Portrait of a Man. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, inv. NM 200. Photo: Cecilia Heisser, NM.
Detail of the centre of the panel with, to the right, the cloverleaf signature of Michiel Claessens.

A detail of the centre-part of the reverse of the panel reveals later criss-cross scratches labouring to remove completely an Antwerp coat of arms that was branded into the wood. Only small remains of the carbonised timer from the hot iron can be observed. The brand (possibly iron no 3, in use 1618-1626) was a sign of approval of the good quality of the panel made by a member of the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke.[2]

To the right of the scratching one observes a small cloverleaf (turned 90° to the left) stamped into the timber. This small leaf is the acknowledged house-mark used by the Antwerp panel maker Michiel Claessens (active 1590-1637).

Due to the marks we can now safely establish that the oak panel used for the marouflage was produced in Antwerp, more than a thousand kilometres North of the Italian Po Plain where the portrait may have been conceived and painted on a canvas sometime during second half of the 16th century. However, when was the painting marouflaged and did this take place in Italy or in the Netherlands? Why scratch away the Antwerp brand but leave the clover leaf of the panel maker intact?

At the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm further examination of the painting will in due course reveal more about its provenance, materiality and history.[3]

The above painting is, however, not unique in having a removed or obscured Antwerp Brand on the back. Two paintings at the SMK display the same fate – and again without a plausible explanation.

Jan Lievens’ (1607-1674) Self-portrait in Profile is one such.[4] It is signed ‘IL’ in ligature. The painting was copied a number of times by assistants or followers.[5] At least one of these copies seems to have occurred simultaneously with the master’s work painted shortly after his arrival in Antwerp in the mid 1630’s.

Jan Lievens, Self-Portrait in Profile. Statens Museum for Kunst, inv. KMSsp413. Photo: J. Skou-Hansen, SMK.

During examination, it appeared that Lievens’ autograph version on the back had a white patch of paint applied only at the centre of the panel. The paint seemed to cover-up a now hardly distinguishable monogram by an Antwerp panel maker.

Details of the back before and after cleaning of the white paint.

After removal of the overpaint, we could not only validate the monogram as that of Guilliam Gabron (1586-1674), but moreover that he used his second punch (datable 1626-1658) to ‘sign’ this panel. Secondly, also the completely obscured Antwerp Brand (no. 4) emerged under the white paint. This particular brand was in use 1619–1638.[6]

The answer as to why the maker’s mark and the Antwerp Brand were overpainted is hard to imagine. Did this happen in order to avoid confusing any 18th century collector about the attribution to Lievens? Would the presence of the Antwerp brand on the back of the Dutch master’s self-portrait cause confusion?

As mentioned, Lievens’ Self-portrait at the SMK was copied multiple times.[7] One of these, identically signed ‘IL’, appears to have both Gabron’s monogram and the exact identical Antwerp brand on the reverse.[8] In this case, the mark and brand were not painted over. The two panels therefore seem to have been produced by not only the same panel maker but also they were both part of the same batch that were approved and branded in the same session by the assay master of the Guild.[9] Subsequently Lievens executed his Self-portrait – which then was copied by another hand on the twin panel.

The dating of this self-portrait has been debated and it has been suggested that Lievens stayed in Antwerp as soon as 1625-26.[10] As Gabron’s second punch, stamped into the reverse, seems introduced in 1626, Lievens could have brought the two panels with him to Leiden. However, a dendrochronological examination suggests that the panel was available only after 1633.[11] As Lievens between 1632 and 1634 temporarily resided in London, the open question would be if the London art marked would have Antwerp panels ready for painting – just as was the case in Paris?[12]

Another possibility may be that this self-portrait by Lievens – and its copy – may be the earliest evidence we have of Lievens admitting an assistant in his Antwerp studio shortly after his arrival from London. We may even speculate that the assistant could have been the fifteen year old Hans van den Wyngaerde. On the 1st of March 1636, the notary Ghijsberti drafted a contract between Lievens and the young apprentice who was to receive training for the coming six years.[13]

If this suggestion is convincing, we may then assume that Lievens’ Self-portrait and its copy were both painted between March 1636 and sometime in 1638, the year in which the use of the Antwerp brand no. 4 seems to run out of use for branding panels. However, the riddle about why someone in the past tried to erase or obscure the presence of panel makers’ stamps and Antwerp brands on an unpainted panel-backing for an Italian portrait of the 16th century and on a Dutch master’s self-portrait of the 17th century still remains to find a plausible explanation…

[1] NM, inv. No. NM 200. Oil on canvas on panel, 72 × 54 cm. The painting is currently under examination by Sarah Ferrari and Martin Olin et al. within the ongoing research project on Italian Paintings at the Nationalmuseum, which aims to continue the catalogue raisonné. The first volume was published in 2015. See the online catalogue here: http://collection.nationalmuseum.se/eMP/eMuseumPlus?service=ExternalInterface&module=exhibition&objectId=3692&viewType=detailView

[2] J. van Damme, ‘De Antwerpse tafereelmakers en hun merken. Identificatie en betekenis’, in Jaarboek Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerpen 1990, p. 193-236.

[3] Italienskt Måleri I Nationalmuseum: Marknad, Musealisering, Materialitet / Italian Paintings At The Nationalmuseum: Market, Musealization, And Materiality. Further information on the project will soon be made available on the Nationalmuseum website.

[4] The painting is mentioned in the Danish Royal Collection, Kunetkammeret, already in 1737. SMK, inv. KMSsp413.

[5] The portrait is strikingly close to J.G. van Vliet’s etching/engraving after Rembrandt, Bust of a man in a gorget and cap with feather. Signed in the plate RHL. v Rijn. jn. 1631. JG v. vliet fecit. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. nr. PK-P-OB-33.369. An almost identical painting in reverse show a Profile of a man with feathered cap and long wavy hair. Monogrammed lower left RHL. Oil on panel, 23.8 x 18 cm. Germany, private collection. See more here: http://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/323-the-r-k-czy-identity/.

[6] Jørgen Wadum, ‘The Antwerp Brand on Paintings on Panels’, in Looking Through Paintings, ed. E. Hermens, 11, pp. 179-198. Archetype Publications Ltd., 1998, p. 186, fig. 8, as brand no. 4.

[7] A cradled copy on panel, 51,2 × 37.8 cm, is in Weimar (Thüringen), Schlossmuseum Weimar, inv./cat. no. G 59.

[8] Sale Christie’s Amsterdam, 9 May 2000, lot 87, as from a private collection in Stuttgart. The painting is known to the author and currently in a private collection.

[9] See the Blog: https://jorgenwadum.com/2019/10/27/apostles-and-panels-in-the-dozens-thats-the-rule/

[10] B. Schnackenburg in cat. The Mystery of the Young Rembrandt, by E. van de Wetering & B. Schnackenburg et al., Staatlische Museen Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister & Museum Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam, 2001-02, p. 111. See also L. Bøgh Rønberg in cat. Rembrandt? The Master and his Workshop, by L. Bøgh Rønberg et al., SMK, 2006, pp, 212-213.

[11] Dendrochronological examination by P. Klein suggest most plausible availability after 1633. See https://rkd.nl/explore/technical/5006546.

[12] A. Koopstra, ‘De Antwerpse ‘witter ende paneelmaker’ Melchior de Bout (werkzaam 1625/26-1658): leverancier van ‘ready-made’ panelen voor de Parijse markt’, in Oud Holland, Vol. 123, nr. 2 (2010), pp. 108-124. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/003067212X13397495480826

[13] For Hans van den Wyngaerde, see: K. de Clippel, ‘Adriaen Brouwer, portrait painter: new identifications and an iconographic novelty’, Simiolus, vol.  30 (2003), pp. 199-200. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3780916?seq=1. I am grateful to Piet Bakker for this reference.

Published by Jørgen Wadum

Jørgen Wadum is a Danish technical art historian.

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